The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Sermon by the Rector from Sunday July 1, 2018.
Today’s Gospel reading is extremely important to me and for very personal reasons. On Wednesday, November 11, 1992, the General Synod of the Church of England (the equivalent of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church which, incidentally, is meeting this week) passed legislation to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood. I remember that day very well, not so much because of the vote, but because of the effects of that vote and how some of my friends and my colleagues reacted to it.
November 11 is also known as ‘Armistice Day’ ‚Äì the day when hostilities in the First World War ceased. It is also the feast day of St Martin of Tours, a soldier of the Roman Emperor’s elite guard in the early part of the fourth century who famously cut his imperial cloak in two to keep a poor homeless man on the street warm. (By the way, that scene is carved at the bottom of the staircase in the parish house).
I was Vicar of Saint Martin’s Church, Plaistow, in East London ‚Äì I worked with three other priests, two lay ministers and Franciscan brothers in a team. We were an Anglo-Catholic parish famous for the restoration of the Franciscan Life in the Church of England. We also had a woman deacon on the staff who was chaplain of our very large local hospital. We were very close as a team but the one thing we had never done was discuss what we would do if the General Synod voted to ordain women to the priesthood, since some of my priestly and lay colleagues did not believe in the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Now that you have the background to that day I can tell you why this Gospel reading is so important to me. As usual, we were due to have a solemn mass at Saint Martin’s Church and, as was common in high church parishes of the Church of England at that time, all the priests plus the preacher and visiting priests were going to concelebrate the mass ‚Äì gathering together at the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s a beautiful sign of unity, especially when the bishop is present and recommended in our own prayer book.
However, it was not to be on November 11th 1992. As the day went on, one by one I received phone calls from all the visiting priests saying that they could not come ‚Äì even the preacher pulled out! My colleagues were so upset with the General Synod decision that they said they did not even want to concelebrate. So, I was left on my own with our deacon and my acolytes. At that time, my wife Alison was not ordained and was working in the local Roman Catholic School as a teacher. I went over to the school staff room and chatted with some of her colleagues including a Roman Catholic Franciscan Sister we knew very well indeed. I was explaining to her how sad it all was when she suddenly exclaimed, ‚ÄúI’ll preach!‚Äù ‚ÄúWhat?‚Äù I replied, ‚ÄúYes,‚Äù she said, ‚ÄúI will preach for you.‚Äù All the more remarkable because the Vatican had already issued a statement regretting the Church of England’s decision.
‚ÄúI will preach for your patronal festival but I would like the Gospel reading to be changed.‚Äù
What did she choose? She chose the first half of today’s Gospel ‚Äì the woman with the hemorrhage.
With my male priestly colleagues sitting in the congregation, Sr. Catherine preached the sermon of her life. Quietly, carefully, but charged with emotion, she talked about her experience growing up as a woman in the Roman Catholic and then becoming a woman in consecrated life. She spoke about her desire to serve the Lord and minister to others as a Franciscan but how sometimes it felt as if people didn’t want her to get too close to Jesus; how so many people, and often priests and bishops in her own church, seemed to crowd around Jesus so that she could not get near to him. She shared how liberated many of her sisters felt that a Church could openly debate, disagree, and move on together in love and charity.
It made the gospel reading we just heard so very poignant. The woman with the hemorrhage was a nobody; unclean in the eyes of the law, she used the crowd of men as her cover to get close to Jesus. He was on his way to the Ruler of the Synagogue’s house; she was not allowed to even enter the synagogue because of her condition. She was furtive and careful ‚Äì was that because of the shame? The rejection that she had experienced for years? I have always been fascinated by Jesus’ reaction ‚Äì he knew, he just knew that something was happening. Did you see how the disciples didn’t even notice the woman? The woman came to Jesus in fear and trembling and, I guess, intended to slip out again, unnoticed but Jesus addressed her with great sensitivity and acceptance with one simple word ‚Äì ‚ÄúDaughter.‚Äù A familial word – daughter. In so doing he made her part of his family and restored her relationship with the community as much as he restored her to full health.
Relationships matter and when there is disagreement, how we handle disagreements matters too. In the years following that famous decision, the Church of England did something very important ‚Äì it ensured that those who disagreed strongly in principle still had a valued place in the Church; that those who could not in conscience accept the ordination of women were still treated as faithful Anglicans. But there was one simple requirement; an insistence that members of the Church respected one another’s differing positions with mutual love.
Over the past few weeks we have been reading from Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church ‚Äì a Church that was divided, where people fell out with one another, which drove Paul to tears.
Over the past few months it has not gone unnoticed that there has sometimes been disharmony and discontent in our parish. I think it is time for me to make two things very clear about my vision for this parish.
First, and most importantly, our mission has not changed and will not change ‚Äì to worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage. Putting Jesus at the center of all that we do inside and outside this Church will transform lives and transform communities and ensure the future health of our Choir School.
Secondly, Saint Thomas Church is very much part of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of New York. Our brothers and sisters in the parishes around us are exactly that ‚Äì part of our family. That is also not going to change. I am glad that Bishop Mary is here today, before she goes to Convention, to celebrate that fact with us.
These two statements underpin my vision for this Church as your Rector.
On Friday, June 29, we celebrated the funeral mass of Chief Ron Spadafora of the New York Fire Department ‚Äì it was Saint Thomas doing what it does best ‚Äì bringing the life of this great city of New York into the heart of the liturgy with beauty and grace. It brought together people of different traditions ‚Äì Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anglicans, into the same space. The horror of 9/11 and the fact that 2000 firefighters are ill with 9/11-related illnesses and that Chief Spadafora was the 178th death since 9/11 suddenly made our differences in doctrine seem very small indeed. As Bishop Mary and I placed the body of Christ in the hands of hundreds of firefighters I could not help but notice how calloused, scarred, engrained with dirt, how wounded most of those hands were. It brought things into sharp relief for me as your pastor. At Ron’s funeral we could not tell at the communion rail who was Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Anglican (and all those Roman Catholics didn’t seem to mind a woman Bishop!) we were all family for a brief while in spite of our differences.
Fifteen years ago, after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church had consented to the election of an openly gay man and given Diocesan Bishops the authority to allow the blessing of same-sex unions the then Rector, Fr. Mead, said these words from this same pulpit:
‚ÄúSaint Thomas Church is a family in the Body of Christ. Family members do not always agree, on matters both small and great. In times like this it is important that, whatever our convictions, we show love and respect for each other as Christians of good will who try to act in good faith. In that spirit let us hold in our prayers the whole Church – worldwide, national and local – and more especially this parish family, that we may always find our peace and unity in Jesus Christ.‚Äù
I find those words very powerful ‚Äì ‘finding our peace and unity in Jesus Christ.’
To do so takes effort – it is hard – but it is characteristic of living in Christian community; it is about putting Jesus at the center of all that we do.
After preaching those words, Father Mead felt he had to repeat some of them to the Vestry and the Parish and he did so in a letter to the parish. This sentence: ‚ÄúIn times like this it is important that, whatever our convictions, we show love and respect for each other as Christians of good will who try to act in good faith.‚Äù
As your priest and pastor, I now commend those same words to you and in the same spirit of love and charity that Father Mead intended and urge you to work with me and the Vestry in growing a parish that will be, as our Presiding Bishop has said, Loving, Liberating, and Life-giving.